I’ve managed to create a nice annual tradition where we go away to celebrate my partner’s birthday each year, meaning I don’t have to buy him an actual physical present and I get another weekend away in the bag each year. As a pair of vegans who really like eating there really was no other option than a long weekend in Berlin as the city has an amazing reputation for good quality exciting vegan food, all at a reasonable price.
Berlin’s history is incredibly recent and as a result its landscape is changing rapidly. I remember visiting Berlin over 10 years ago and feeling that Potsdamer Platz was the edge of the city. Now, building sites stretch out as far as the eye can see and everything feels a lot, well, shinier; the Tasceles squat is gone and Kreuzberg and Prenzlauer Berg are heading towards gentrification. But with change, of course, comes new opportunities and I was excited to see how Berlin was dealing with its rapid evolution.
My preferred way to explore any city is always on foot wherever possible and so I tend to arrange our days by what we can reasonably cover on foot (though to properly explore Berlin you’ll need to get used to the public transport system – more on that below). I find that this avoids what I call “checkbox tourism” where you just flit between key sights. Often the heart of a city is in the inbetween and you can sometimes discover some true gems among the everyday. So here are some of my favourite routes through the city that are a little off the main well worn tracks.
Walk 1 – Cemeteries & Concrete
Start in Prenzlauerberg at Kollwitzplatz witnessing the peak of contemporary Berlin hipsterhood. Scour the farmer’s market (Thursday & Saturday only) for vegan goodies and pick up an excellent coffee from No Fire No Glory on Rykestraße to accompany you on your walk. On the south side of the square note the two large doors marked by the Star of David, marking the edge of the Jewish Cemetery which contains over 25,000 marked graves, as well as many more unmarked. These gates form the original entrance supposedly established by the Prussian King to avoid the surrounding slums but are now permanently closed. If you’re visiting during the week, head a block south-west to visit the cemetery from Schonhauser Allee.
Next, walk south-east from Kollwitzplatz down Knaackerstraße to Wasserturm Park which, not surprisingly, contains the Wasserturm, Berlin’s oldest water tower. Built in 1877, it’s no longer in use, with the exception of some apartments built under the larger water storage tank originally intended to house the machinery operators, which are apparently very much in demand! Head east across Prenzlauer Allee, and if your caffeine levels are low grab a top up (and maybe a sit down) at Godshot on Immanuelkitchstraße.
Once reenergised, head south down Bundesstraße to the entrance to the old St. Marien & St. Nikolai cemetery. This cemetery is a strangely beautiful relic of the city, containing a number of large battle scarred tombs and mausoleums and headstones dating back hundreds of years. As a reflection of the more modern culture of the city it also contains as a small nature park called Leise-Park, which quite beautifully translates to “quiet-park”.
From the southern edge of the park you’re only a hop, skip and a jump away from Alexanderplatz and the famous Fernsehturm TV tower, as well as the many buildings surrounding the square built in the very recognisable Plattenbau (basically, concrete) architectural style. The square is a big transport interchange as well as a shopping centre, and usually has a market or other event set up in the middle of it. Take your photo under the world clock and pretend you’re in the Bourne Supremacy.
By now it’s probably time for food so end your explore with a trip to nearby Dolores , which serves California style burritos in a fast food setting. There are three vegan burritos on the menu, as well as one veggie and a few meat options, plus a small selection of Mexican beers and soft drinks.
Walk 2- Berlin souvenirs & memorials
You can pretty much guarantee that if there’s a flea market nearby, i’ll be at it. They’re a really good way to pick up unique (cheap) souvenirs with a bit of a story to them, and I can easily spend hours rummaging through boxes trying to get that perfect find. In Berlin the Mauerpark just north of the city centre fills up every Sunday morning, mostly with hipsters and tourists. The main site for the market is on the western edge of the Mauerpark itself and is part Camden High Street part junk yard, and is definitely more tourist focused (or at least they sussed as out as some) as everything we showed an interest in felt wildly overpriced.
Once you’re done browsing and grumbling at prices then head to the street food section and track down the exceptional Eat Up vegan gyros stand. There are also a few little bar stalls around here so you can chill with your beer and your gyros and think about that vase you probably should have bought…
There’s a second, slightly smaller, market site further east just across Bernauer Str., or for the best finds (and where we reckon the locals actually go), head down to Arkonaplatz for a great selection of mid-century furniture, lighting and ceramics, as well as books and other bric-a-brac.
From Arkonaplatz head back up to Bernauer Str and walk east until you get to the U-bahn station. Cross over Brunnenstraße and turn left, before taking the path on your right to follow the route just south of Bernauer Str. that follows the course of the Berlin Wall. When the wall was erected it ran along Bernauer Str., and the street became famous for escapes from windows of apartment blocks in the eastern part of the city. A number of moving memorials have been erected along this route, identifying stories of the wall and those who suffered as a result of it and some of the buildings on the south side of the street display the view from 1961 on their gables. Take your time.
Once you get to Ackerstraße visit the Berlin Wall Memorial – climb the viewing tower on the north side of Bernaeur Str. to see the preserved section of the wall containing a guard tower and the “death strip” of East Berlin. Visit the memorial site on the ground to get a sense of the human scale as you peer through from east to west.
As you head home do so via Nordbanhof and visit the excellent exhibition on the ghost stations of East Berlin.
Walk 3 – Food and shopping in Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg
As a vegan when you visit a city there’s usually one place you’ve heard of and you know that no matter what, you have to visit. For me that was Brammibal’s Donuts, an all vegan bakery on the Landwehr Canal in Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg, and I was pretty certain that we needed to set aside at least half a day to eating donuts and exploring the shops and cafes of Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg, the slightly crummy crusty hipster side of the city. Start, of course, at Brammibal’s. Enjoy coffee and donuts sat out the front watching the world go buy and while you’re there you might as well buy a few extra donuts to go to keep your energy up over the next few hours. If you can, visit on a Tuesday or Friday and spend a little longer on the canal exploring the Turkish Market, which takes place right in front of Brammibal’s stretching between Kottbusser Damm and Glogauer Str.. If you’re still hungry post-donuts then grab a falafel from one of the many stalls along the canal.
Take a small detour south down Bürknerstraße to Static Shock, a wonderful little record store selling a great selection of mostly diy/independent punk, rock, metal and indie records, as well as some mainstream releases and a good 2nd hand section. If records are your thing then also visit Soultrade one block south on Sanderstraße before heading back north across the canal on Ohlauer Str. to visit Heisse Scheiben and Wowsville. No doubt by now loaded down with vinyl, keep going north until you hit Weiner Straße (yes, we laughed too) and turn left. Down this street is a great selection of shops and cafes and you can easily spend half a day strolling, drinking and eating. Buy organic and fair-trade clothes at Supermarché, grab a vegan currywurst at Yellow Sunshine (probably still not full from the donuts right?) and continue on to Oranienstraße where things get a little cleaner and more expensive at high-end clothing boutiques like Depot 2 and Voo Store.
Where we ate
Berlin has a bit of a thing for brunch buffets, and Kopps, on the eastern edge of Mitte, does an excellent vegan offering. It’s an all-you-can-eat deal, which we saw as a bit of a challenge, and there’s an excellent selection of salads, salamis, cheese, bread, spreads, tofu, lasagna (!), beans and pancakes, all vegan. They also have a great selection of fresh juices which aren’t included in the buffet but are so delicious they’re worth spending a bit extra on, particularly the rocket lemonade.
As a special birthday dinner treat I’d booked a table at Cookies Cream right in the centre of Berlin. Despite the name, Cookies Cream is one of the highest concept vegan restaurants I’ve been to, with an incredibly inventive menu that us vegans are never usually lucky enough to be able to experience. Beyond the meal, Cookies Cream is a true Berlin experience; the entrance is down an alley, behind some bins and through an unmarked door (we nearly went through the staff entrance) and once inside there are several dark corridors and ante-rooms to manoeuvre before you make your way to the upstairs dining room, which feels a bit like it’s been inserted into a concrete parking garage. The food was beyond fancy – to start I had radicchio with pickled cauliflower, pomelo and fig mustard and my main was baked aubergine with corn puree, sugar snaps, peanuts and poppadom, all washed down with an excellent Riesling. We were guided through the menu by the incredibly friendly and unpretentious staff and the food absolutely lived up to our expectations. At 44 euros for three courses, this is excellent value for the quality of what’s on offer.
Where we drank
Not surprisingly, Berlin has a bit of a thing for beer so is well served with craft beer bars. Kaschk, on Rosa-Luxeumbourg-Platz, is a particularly “Berlin” example, serving not only a small but excellent selection of beers, but also vegan cake and good quality coffee. During the day it feels like a hipster Starbucks, full of freelancers working from MacBooks, but as the evening wears on the crowd thankfully becomes a lot more lively.
Hermann is a bar focusing pretty much entirely on Belgian beer with an absolutely incredible selection. I was pretty excited to try a porter from the 3 Fonteinen brewery but unless you’re a fan of trappist or sour beers then this place probably isn’t up your street.
Hopfenreich is another great option – tucked away on the edge of Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg, we visited mid afternoon and it was pretty much empty. There’ s a rotating selection of around 22 beers, mostly from smaller breweries, and the very friendly staff are on hand to help you make your selection!
Our most “Berlin” experience by far was at Weinerei Forum just north of Rosenthaler-Platz U-bahn, where we’d heard rumours of 2 euro all-you-can-drink from 8pm each night. The rumours were accurate and from 8pm the bar fills up very quickly with arty student types keen to get drunk on mediocre wine for not much money at all. Weinerei is actually a pretty good wine bar and the pre-8pm offering is good quality. However after 8pm it all gets a bit weird – you join the queue to the bar and help yourself from one of the bottles. Taste (if you want) but spend too long and you’ll start to feel glares from people waiting behind you. We panicked and ended up with a few too many glasses of very sweet white wine, but the people watching opportunities here are excellent, especially in the summer when you can sit outside on one of the pavement tables.
Where we stayed
Due to the abundance of vegan-friendly eateries in the city I’d decided to book us into a hotel for the weekend instead of an AirBnB. Finding somewhere central that wasn’t entirely soulless was a little difficult; Berlin is very well served with business-friendly hotels which seem to take up much of the centre. I wanted to stay north of the city, near Prenzlauer Berg which has a lot of good bars and cafes, so we booked a couple of nights in the Ackselhaus Hotel near the Senefelderplatz U-Bahn. If you’re happy to pay for some space and luxury then it comes highly recommended, with very spacious rooms decked out beautifully, and for a birthday treat it was perfect for us. However at 160 euros a night there are certainly cheaper options in the city.
The EastSeven Hostel in nearby Prenzlauer Berg is an excellent budget alternative. The hostel has clean and modern private rooms (with shared bathrooms) and some great communal spaces, including a 24hr kitchen for use by guests and rates are around 30 euros per person.